“Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions … It is a cause of particular concern to young Americans, because they, more than we, will wreak the grim consequences of our failure to act on programs which are needed now if we are to prevent disaster later,” Richard Nixon said in his 1970 State of the Union Address—so quoted on KQED’s blog, northern California’s public media stations.
April 22, 1970, was the first official Earth Day. Signed into law by then president Richard Nixon, Earth Day was in response to a lot of nasty stuff happening in the United States. It had been brewing as a movement for a while. Then as now, with the threats of climate change, we were at a turning point when things began to happen and change. These days, we seem to celebrate Earth Month, with everything to events and celebrations to film festivals throughout April.
But back in the late 1960s, many rivers were seriously polluted with toxic waste; some rivers had NO fish. Some thought the great Lake Erie was dead. On the West coast, a January 1969 offshore oil rig blowout spewed many thousands of gallons of crude oil along Santa Barbara Beaches. At the time, it was considered the largest oil spill (now it is the third largest).
Later that year, in June, the Cuyahoga River running through Cleveland caught fire. Wikipedia says this about the river and its fire:
“The 1969 Cuyahoga River fire helped spur an avalanche of water pollution control activities, resulting in the Clean Water Act, Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, and the creation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA). As a result, large point sources of pollution on the Cuyahoga have received significant attention from the OEPA in recent decades. These events are referred to in Randy Newman's 1972 song "Burn On," R.E.M.'s 1986 song "Cuyahoga," and Adam Again's 1992 song "River on Fire." Great Lakes Brewing Company of Cleveland, Ohio named their Burning River Pale Ale after the event.”
Today, the Cuyahoga has 44 fish species, though environmentalists are still concerned about various forms of run off and water quality.
Poor air quality was killing people. Notorious Los Angeles, once considered the among the largest U.S. city with the poorest air quality, sported people wearing gas masks. Fears were that the need for wearing gas masks would prove to be the new normal. Today, Los Angeles has better air quality than then. More poignantly, 168 people in New York City died of respiratory illnesses attributed to poor air quality in just three days in November 1966; it, too, has improved.
Department of Interior Secretary Stewart L. Udall announced the first list of endangered species in 1967. It included 78 species including the nation’s symbol, the Bald Eagle. Rachel Carson had already pointed out in her 1962 Silent Spring that DDT was causing birds to lay thin-shelled eggs that did not hatch. Today, there are literally flocks of Bald Eagles in certain parts of the country. It is no longer a rarity to spot an eagle.
Gasoline contained lead and smoking was allowed pretty much everywhere. Gasoline no longer contains lead. We are developing alternative fuels and means of transportation. Smoking is no longer allowed in most public places. Many places have established smoke-free campuses; smokers cannot even go outside a public building to smoke on smoke-free campuses.
The notable negative events sparked change. Wisconsin Democratic Senator Gaylord Nelson spearheaded what became a national day of environmental awareness. Nelson said at the time, “If the people really understood that in the lifetime of their children, they’re going to have destroyed the quality of the air and the water all over the world and perhaps made the globe unlivable in a half century, they’d do something about it. But this is not well understood.”
PBS has a documentary that it aired on the program American Experience entitled Earth Days that explains much of what happened next.
And then came the 1971 public service announcement (PSA) featuring the crying Indian, Iron Eyes Cody. Generations of people remember that Indian’s tear.
No one can rest on laurels. For every step forward, there have often been steps back environmentally. Some say, “Happy Earth Day!” But the earth is not yet happy. There are days ahead in which we still need to fix what ails us and learn to mitigate the effects of what can no longer be fixed. We are still not entirely free of the fear that much of the earth could become unlivable. However, it IS nearly 50 years since Earth Day became an idea and then a reality that sparked change. Earth is threatened but still livable. We can all continue to change.
Image: Video of Indian shedding tear.